Saturday, September 11, 2010

Gordon Wood in the Radical Middle

Watching the historian Gordon Wood on Book TV’s “In Depth” program on C-Span 2 where they spend three hours interviewing a noted author. He’s a popular historian of revolutionary America. What struck me was his complete ignorance of questions regarding the philosophy of history writing and the value-laden character of all history writing. He was asked about Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” and saw it as emphasizing only a “dark” view of American history and implied that it doesn’t tell the whole story, which presumably Wood does. Wood says nothing about Zinn’s book being a counter-history to conventional history and that it chooses a different perspective from which to write history, that of the poorer, disempowered people who are generally overlooked in conventional history writing. Wood shows no awareness that there is even a question regarding the perspectival character of history writing. Even on a show for the general public this could be acknowledged.

Then Wood was asked about how he reacts to histories written that are to the political right and to the political left of him. He used the hoary defense of thinking he’s doing something right (correct) because he’s criticized by both sides. This is a ridiculous defense I’ve heard many times since you could also conclude that you are doubly wrong because you’re being criticized twice. But the point of the defense is to portray the two sides criticizing you as having an agenda so Wood can say that he transcends that partisanship but occupying the neutral middle. This is the myth of the neutral observer which people who hew to the reigning values use to make it appear as if they are disinterested truth tellers. Wood can’t see that he has a perspective like everyone else and everyone has to choose the values that will inform their history-telling. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t agreed upon (and debated) criteria for determining facts and good arguments, it means that any history writer who is telling the story of the past must have a value system in order to organize their narrative. This is the argument of Hayden White. What’s striking about Wood is that he indicates no awareness of this perspective and blithely believes that his position in the center, away from the agenda-biased extremes, allows him to simply get at the truth better.